It was as if the air inside that unmarked radio car had been atmospherically electrified. Not unlike those few warning seconds described by victims of lightning strikes. The static forced hairs in unmentionable places to stand at attention.
As Cookie would later remark, we’d just stepped in it. The night had been dead when it came to action. The police radio had been practically silent. In addition, the Gun Squad, whom we were supposed to be trailing, had been pulled to offer safety and assistance to firefighters beating back the flames licking the north slope of the San Fernando Valley. In their helpful zeal to show me around some of LA’s meaner streets, Cookie and former LA Sheriff’s detective Wild Bill, had decided to give me a tour of Compton’s New Wilmington Gardens, a federal housing project that was essentially a repository for illicit drugs and gang activity.
What we’d stumbled into was some kind of gang-bangin’ summit. A dozen or so armed gangsters were gathered in the complex’s general parking lot, headlights of their bling-trimmed Hummers and Caddy Escalades pointed to some activity at the center. Yet upon our slow, headlight-free entry to the vicinity, they’d frozen their roll and lamped every available eyeball onto the unmarked radio car that—from their perspective—contained three very white and equally unwelcome cops.
I recall the voices in a variety of orders. Both Cookie’s and Wild Bill’s:
“Listen. If I tell you to get down on the floor. Think there’s a gun under your seat. You know how to use it? Shit. If stuff starts happening? Just aim for the windows and keep shooting, okay?
Why Cookie didn’t throw the radio car into reverse and slowly back out, I still don’t recall. The spaces between the apartment buildings were narrow and lighting was practically nil. In Cookie’s wheelhouse, the only way out was to venture to further in.
“Gotta find a place to turn us around,” said Cookie. “Stay low.”
Any and all looseness that had previous existed in my tour guide sheriffs had been replaced by a defensive stiffening. They both rolled their windows down as the radio car proceeded forward toward the gang summit.
“How’s it goin’ fellas?” grinned Cookie at the gangsters, their white T’s barely covering the bulges in their waistbands. I spied a bad boy standing at the open door of his polished white Lexus, the opaque panel concealing what I could only assume was a gun in his hand.
“Just lookin’ for a place to turn around,” waved Wild Bill, smiling and friendly, every gesture designed to appear benign in every considerable nature.
The configuration of the parking lot and the odd way the gangs’ vehicles had been set for the summit left little room for Cookie to execute a simple three-point turn. It was more like a comical eight point star, nudging the radio car forward, spinning the wheel, reversing five feet, spinning the wheel, forward and back and forward again. Yet every breathless second, all eyeballs in the complex were skinned and leveled on us; most expected a cacophony of gunfire and blood to bust out at any moment.
“Havin’ a nice evening?” asked Cookie between gear-shifts and wheel spins.
I felt around under my seat. If there was a gun for me to grab, I couldn’t find it with my fingertips. I was conscious of my sudden movements. The last thing my tour guides needed was for me to start the gunfight with nervous twitching.
“Almost there,” promised Cookie to the slowly approaching thug with wide-set eyes under a satin red skully. “And we’ll be on our way, right fellas?”
“Just givin’ a tour,” assured Wild Bill to the gangster who appeared outside his window. The bad boy smiled back, rocking his head up and down in slow-motion, never letting his hand off the butt of the weapon that was obviously tucked in the small of his back.
We are seconds from the world blowing up, I said to myself. What the hell did I get myself into?
Some years later I can finally answer my own stupid question. I’d gotten myself into precisely what I was looking for. A real situation with real cops who might, for the smallest instant in time, give me a window into the world I was trying to both understand and exploit into a hit TV show.
With a plethora of warm and non-threatening gestures and winks, both Cookie and Wild Bill appeared to throw out enough good will to keep our unexpected hosts from lighting up our radio car like Sonny Corleone had just pulled up to a 1940’s Long Island toll booth. With the final execution of the turnaround, neither Cookie nor Wild Bill was yet breathing sighs of relief. Wild Bill, in fact, was twisted in his front passenger seat, eyeballing the situation through our rear window just to make certain nobody we’d left behind unleashed a little good-riddance volley of steaming lead.
The tension release finally came after Cookie had saluted the security guard and safely steered the vehicle back through that reinforced gate.
“Whoooooooweeeee,” wheezed Wild Bill. “Did I just piss myself? Hey, Doug. How ‘bout you? You piss yourself? Nobody would blame you if you did.”
“So that was exactly what it looked like,” I surmised, feeling my heart practically beating out of my chest.
“That was lucky,” said Cookie. “We coulda all been very very dead back there.”
“Nice,” I joked, feeling an oncoming flop sweat damming under my scalp.
“That almost went really bad,” said Wild Bill. “Jesus. I’m one happily retired cop. And my tight asshole plans to stay retired.”
“So this doesn’t make you wanna get back on the job?” I asked.
“That shit certainly didn’t,” said Wild Bill.
And so ended our evening. I was returned to the Lennox station house where I bid farewell to both Cookie and Wild Bill before I nosed my way back over the hill and into the safety of the San Fernando Valley. Next on my list was to turn what I’d seen and observed into something that might be recognized as a relevant cop show.
Somehow, I couldn’t make that happen. Despite my experience with the LA Sheriffs, as well my previous tag-alongs with both the LAPD and NYPD, I was unable to formulate a TV series that didn’t feel as if it resembled one of the umpteen zillion shows I’d not only watched, but had chosen to turn off. How could I develop a series for television that I wouldn’t care to watch on my own time?
Yet I had to. I was committed. Hell, I’d nearly gotten shot to shit in pursuit of some dag-blame verisimilitude.
I pulled together my notes, thoughts, good and bad ideas and, despite not being sold myself, assumed my keen sales acumen would be sizzle enough to get me past the first gauntlet and onto a path to a new pilot script deal.
“Not your best stuff,” admonished my producer pal after I must’ve wasted an hour of his time trying to stitch together a TV show worth both our efforts.
“There’s something there,” I insisted.
“Not today,” he said before eventually asking me, “Do you even want to do a cop show?”
Good question. Find out next week in the conclusion of FEELING LUCKY?